The Church of Seven Councils

Principle of Conciliarity

The early Church did not have a hierarchal decision making process like the western Church has today. Decisions were made based on the the way the Apostles first made decisions regarding the dogma of the Church. It was a process called conciliarity. The idea of conciliarity is the supreme authority lies in the action of a council. Originally it was a council of the Apostles. This later became the Ecumenical Council of all bishops of the church.

Conciliarity means that the supreme authority in the Church lies in the Ecumenical Council.

The Apostles showed us how to make a decision in the church. The first church council in history is often referred to as the Council of Jerusalem. It is described in Acts 15. It was called to resolve a disagreement within the early Church between those who desired that all should observe the traditional rules of Judaism and those represented by Paul, who did not believe that there was such a necessity. The central issue was circumcision of the Gentiles. There was an intense argument that occurred in Antioch and it was decided to go to Jerusalem and discuss it with the council of Apostles. Here it was discussed. All listened with an ear of discernment. For they were all of the Holy Spirit. Finally, James who was serving as the head of the council summarized the discussion and gave the final decision. We see here in operation a process that is sometimes referred to today as consensus decision making. It is rational, yet beyond rational and is a decision made collectively by holy persons through whom the Holy Spirit is actively working. It is this method that the process of the Ecumenical councils are based as well as all other synodal actions in the Church.


At the time of the First Ecumenical Council there were five Patriarchates. Originally where were three. One in Rome the capital city, one in the major cities of Antioch and Alexandria. Then the First Ecumenical Council acknowledged Jerusalem as a patriarchate. Then by the Second Ecumenical Council, after Constantinople had become the functional capital of the Roman Empire, the Bishop of Constantinople was given the title as patriarch and considered to be first in honor among the others except for Rome which was to be first in honor among equals.

This map shows the location of these important centers of the church. For a decision in council to be considered “ecumenical” the process had to include representatives from each of these patriarchates. Throughout the period of the Seven Ecumenical Councils these were the major centers of the Church.

Councils Preceding the First Ecumenical Council

We have already discussed the important Council of Jerusalem where the process of decision making and place of final authority in the resolution of differences was established.

In Scripture we are told of a later convention which took place “When all of the elders were present.” (Acts 21:18) There exists a set of canons called the Canons of the Apostles, which may of come from this gathering. These were affirmed as Church canons later in the 6th and 7th council. It is believed that this set of canons is dated between 56 - 58 AD.

First Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325

Aghia Sofia NiceaNicaea, today Iznik, is located on the shore of a lake close to the Asian coast of the Marmara Sea, in the historical region called Bithynia.Left is the ruins of Aghia Sofia Cathedral where First Ecumenical Council was held.

The first council was important because it dealt with a deviation from the teachings of the early Church due to the preaching of Arius, who was a priest at the church of Baucalis in Egypt. He was in open conflict with the Bishop of Alexandria, Alexander. The issue was the divinity of Christ. Arius taught that if Jesus was born then there was a time when He did not exist. If He became God, then there was a time when He was not. Therefore, He cannot be God. Jesus then was inferior to the father, a creature. What was at stake here was that if Christ is less than God, then it renders it impossible for our human deification (to become like God). It is only if Christ is both man and God that we can hope to be united with God. It is only God who can open the way of union and our salvation. The council declared this teaching to be a heresy decreeing that Christ is God. He is of the same essence (Homoousios) with God the Father.

This first Council made the doctrine of the Holy Trinity very precise to avoid future debates on this issue. The result was what is known as the Nicean Creed (it was added to in the Second Council as we will see in a moment). The council also set a uniform date for the celebration of Pascha (Easter). The Council involved what we today know as some of the most important Holy Fathers of the Church. Saint Athanasius the Great was one of the prime defenders against Arianism. He later became Bishop of Alexandria and faced over sixteen years in exile for staying true to his Orthodox beliefs.

Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381

This council was called by emperors Gratian and Theodosius I. This council was called to continue the work of the first council to expand the Nicean Creed to include teachings about the Holy Spirit. They also condemned the teaching of Macedius, who declared the Son created the Holy Spirit. Macedonius taught that the Holy Spirit was not a person (hypostasis), but simply a power of God. Therefore, the Holy Spirit was inferior to the Father and the Son. In condemning his teaching the council further clarified the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The council declared that there was one God in three persons (hypostases): Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

With this work the Creed, which is recited today, was completed. This Creed was later affirmed in later councils.

Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431

This council was held under emperor Theodosius II at the request of Nestorius, whose teachings had been condemned by Celestine, the Patriarch of Rome. Nestorius believed that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a man, Jesus Christ, not God the “Logos”. Therefore, he said that the Logos only dwelled in Christ, as in a Temple. Christ was, therefore, only the bearer of God. Then the Virgin Mary should be called “Christokos”, Mother of Christ” and not “Theotokos” Mother of God.” He over emphasized the human nature of Christ at the expense of His divine nature. The council affirmed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one person and not two separate persons: the man, Jesus and the Son of God, Logos. They decreed that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God (Logos), is complete God and complete man, with a rational soul and body. The Virgin Mary is “Theotokos” because she gave birth not to man, but to God who became man. This union of the two natures took place in such a way that did not disturb the other.

This council affirmed the creed of the First and Second Councils without any changes.

Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451

The fourth council was called under the emperor Marcian. Its task was to defend Orthodoxy against the heresy of Eutyches and the Monophysites. To counter the extreme of the Nestorian heresy, there were some who now emphasized the unity of Christ with the Divinity. The Monphysites saw Christ as one but where the human nature was completely absorbed by the divine. This resulted in Christ with one personality and only one nature.

The main proponent of this heresy was Eutyches. He proclaimed "After the incarnation of God the Word I worship one nature, the nature of God Who took on flesh and became man"; "I confess that our Lord consists of two natures before [their] union, and after [their] union I confess one nature." He boldly proclaimed, "He Who was born of the Virgin Mary is perfect God and perfect man, but does not have flesh which is consubstantial with ours."

Eutyches managed to convince the Emperor Theodosius of his view and convinced him to call a council to affirm this view. Such council was called, but it is not known as an ecumenical council, but as the “Robbers” council. When Theodoius died Marcian, who was deeply committed to Orthodoxy, took his place. Leo the Great, the Pope of Rome, called for a new council to deal with this controversy. This council was attended by over 600 fathers, more than any other. It proclaimed:

“Following the holy fathers, we teach with one voice that the Son [of God] and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same [Person], that He is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, true God and true man, of a reasonable soul and [human] body consisting, consubstantial with the Father as touching His Godhead, and consubstantial with us as touching His manhood; having become like us in all things save sin only; begotten of His Father before the ages according to His Godhead; but in these last days, for us men and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to His manhood. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets of old have spoken concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ has taught us, and as the Creed of the fathers has delivered unto us.”

Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553

This council was called by the Emperor Justinian The Great. It was held in the most beautiful church ever built, the Hagia Sophia. It was called to finally end the Nestorian and Monophysite controversies which still raged. It confirmed the previous four Councils.

Sixth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 680

This council dealt with the monothelite controversy. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius, taught that although Christ had two natures (divine and human), He nevertheless acted as God only. In other words, His divine nature made all the decisions and His human nature only carried and acted them out. Hence the name: “Monothelitism” (“mono” one and “thelesis” will)

It declared:

Christ had two natures with two activities: as God working miracles, rising from the dead and ascending into heaven; as Man, performing the ordinary acts of daily life. Each nature exercises its own free will. Christ's divine nature had a specific task to perform and so did His human nature. Each nature performed those tasks set forth without being confused, subjected to any change or working against each other. The two distinct natures and activities related to them were mystically united in the one Divine Person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

So what were these council sessions like? In this case, the Emperor presided over this council surrounded by high court officials. On his right sat the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Antioch and next to them the representative of the Patriarch of Alexandria. On the Emperor's left were seated the representatives of the Pope. In the midst of the assembly were placed the Holy Gospels. The Emperor was not able to be present during the 11th to 17th sessions, but returned and presided at the final gathering. The greater part of the eighteen sessions was devoted to an examination of the Scriptural and patristic passages bearing on the question of one or two wills, one or two operations, in Christ. George, Patriarch of Constantinople, was in agreement with the evidence of the Orthodox teaching concerning the two wills and two operations in Christ, but Macarius of Antioch, resisted to the end. In the 8th session, on 7 March 681, the council adopted the teaching of Pope Agatho in condemnation of Monothelitism.

Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 787

The seventh council was convened under Empress Irene. It was about the use of icons in the Church. In 726, in disregard of the protests of Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Emperor Leo III issued his first edict against the veneration of images, and their exhibition in public places. This prohibition of a custom seems to have been inspired by a genuine desire to improve public morality, and received the support of the official aristocracy and a section of the clergy. But, a majority of the theologians and all the monks opposed these measures with uncompromising hostility, and in the western parts of the empire the people refused to obey the edict. A revolt, which broke out in Greece, mainly on religious grounds, was crushed by the imperial fleet in 727. In 730, Patriarch Germanos I of Constantinople resigned rather than subscribe to an iconoclast decree. Leo had him replaced by Anastasios who willingly sided with the emperor on the question of icons. In the Italian Peninsula, the defiant attitude of Popes Gregory II and Gregory III on behalf of image-veneration led to a fierce quarrel with the emperor. The former summoned councils in Rome to anathematize and excommunicate the iconoclasts (730, 732); Leo retaliated by transferring Southern Italy and Illyricum from the papal diocese to that of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The struggle was accompanied by an armed outbreak in the exarchate of Ravenna in 727, which Leo finally endeavored to subdue by means of a large fleet. This created a fierce conflict between iconoclast, who were suspicious of religious art and demanded that the Church rid itself of all such art by destroying it and the iconophiles who wanted to preserve them because they served the doctrinal teachings of the Church.

The council proclaimed the following:

"We define that the holy icons, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honor (timitiki proskynisis), but not of real worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature, ... which is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands."

John of Damascus was one of the famous defenders of icons.

Issues in Byzantine Iconoclasm

What accounts of iconoclast arguments remain are largely found in iconodule writings. To understand iconoclastic arguments, one must note the main points:

  1. Iconoclasm condemned the making of any lifeless image (e.g. painting or statue) that was intended to represent Jesus or one of the saints. 
  2. For iconoclasts, the only real religious image must be an exact likeness of the prototype - of the same substance, which they considered impossible, seeing wood and paint as empty of spirit and life. Thus for iconoclasts the only true (and permitted) "icon" of Jesus was the Eucharist, which was believed to be his actual body and blood.
  3. Any true image of Jesus must be able to represent both his divine nature (which is impossible because it cannot be seen nor encompassed) and his human nature (which is possible). But by making an icon of Jesus, one is separating his human and divine natures, since only the human can be depicted (separating the natures was considered Nestorianism - the doctrine where Jesus was considered two persons rathe than a unified person), or else confusing the human and divine natures, considering them one (union of the human and divine natures was considered monophysitism).
  4. Icon use for religious purposes was viewed as an innovation in the Church, a Satanic misleading of Christians to return to pagan practice. "Satan misled men, so that they worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. The Law of Moses and the Prophets cooperated to remove this ruin...But the previously mentioned creator of evil...gradually brought back idolatry under the appearance of Christianity."
  5. It was also seen as a departure from ancient Church tradition, of which there was a written record opposing religious images.

The chief theological opponents of iconoclasm was John of Damascus. John declared that he did not venerate matter, "but rather the Creator of matter." However he also declared, "But I also venerate the matter through which salvation came to me, as if filled with divine energy and grace." He includes in this latter category the ink in which the gospels were written as well as the paint of images, the wood of the Cross, and the body and blood of Jesus.

The iconodule response to iconoclasm included:

  1. Assertion that the biblical commandment forbidding images of God had been superseded by the incarnation of Jesus, who, being the second person of the Trinity, is God incarnate in visible matter. Therefore, they were not depicting the invisible God, but God as He appeared in the flesh. This became an attempt to shift the issue of the incarnation in their favor, whereas the iconoclasts had used the issue of the incarnation against them.
  2. Further, in their view idols depicted persons without substance or reality, while icons depicted real persons. Essentially the argument was "all religious images not of our faith are idols; all images of our faith are icons to be venerated." This was considered comparable to the Old Testament practice of only offering burnt sacrifices to God, and not to any other gods.
  3. Regarding the written tradition opposing the making and veneration of images, they asserted that icons were part of unrecorded oral tradition (parádosis, sanctioned in Orthodoxy as authoritative in doctrine by reference to 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Basil the Great, etc.).
  4. Arguments were drawn from the miraculous Acheiropoieta, the supposed icon of the Virgin painted with her approval by Saint Luke, and other miraculous occurrences around icons, that demonstrated divine approval of Iconodule practices.
  5. Iconodules further argued that decisions such as whether icons ought to be venerated were properly made by the church assembled in council, not imposed on the church by an emperor. Thus the argument also involved the issue of the proper relationship between church and state. Related to this was the observation that it was foolish to deny to God the same honor that was freely given to the human emperor.

Empress Irene was the wife of Leo IV. Her most notable act was the restoration of the orthodox veneration of icons or images, a policy which she had always secretly favored, though compelled to abjure it in her husband's lifetime. Having elected Tarasios, one of her partisans, to the patriarchate in 784, she summoned two church councils. The first of these, held in 786 at Constantinople, was frustrated by the opposition of the soldiers. The second, convened at Nicaea in 787, formally revived the adoration of images and reunited the Eastern Orthodox Church with that of Rome.

The Truth In Its Fullest

The Ecumenical Councils of the Church have served a critical importance. It is through these councils that the Church has been able to withstand political forces that have threatened to change the teachings of the Apostles. The great controversies that arose in the earliest days of the Church were in the end brought to a head in a council of bishops who through the Holy Spirit were able to affirm the truth of Christianity.

The Orthodox Church is known as the Church of the Seven Councils. This means that our doctrine is unchanged from the pronouncements of these councils. In the West there have been innovations from the earliest truths proclaimed by these Councils. The Eastern Orthodox Church remains true to the wisdom of these Seven Councils. This is why we say that Orthodoxy preserves the truth of the Christian faith in its fullest.